[Repeat post. First posted on 08/07/2014 with the title ‘God-Fearing and fasting’, and now as ‘Fasting, God-Fearing and Why’ with some edition]
I take a humble attempt in this essay to explain the meaning of two Arabic words: taqwā (تقوي) and ṣawm (صوم), relating them to This-life and Afterlife. Let me begin by saying, taqwā is God-fearing and ṣawm is fasting. By fasting, one is expected to gain control over carnal desires, and, by being God fearing, they are expected to gain strength to live a pious life. But, expectation as we know of it, doesn't always hit the mark; this is reality.
Of the expection, a person is meant to reach the Afterlife with a pure soul, for we are from God, and to God we return. When people will make their return, there would be a desire in man to meet God, to see Him. But, is it possible? Yes, the learned of men say so. It is hoped that the Afterlife would be conducive in a way for those who had striven in the world improving themselves, and lived piously, would see Him, and those who will be favoured by Him.
The soul is on a journey, going towards the Afterlife. That world is unseen, unknown and unfamiliar as yet to us. But, that is home, the final one and eternal. The souls will have to achieve many qualities before reaching their destiny. Of these things are self-purification, self-control, God-consciousness and piety. Let us take a keyword first: 'taqwa', to see some cross connections or overlapping of other ideas.
Taqwā literally means protection, or guarding oneself from forbidden things. In a spiritual sense, this protection is from carnality, from evil temptations. It is about freeing oneself from the inner chain. This is a struggle to stay aloof from the worldly pollution, and to live within the lawful sphere of life. The words such as God-fearing, God-consciousness, piety etc. fall within the spectrum of senses. Taqwā is about avoiding all that are unwanted, in terms of bad action and desires.
The verbal root of the word taqwā is waqā-yaqī (يقي-وقي), meaning to guard, to safeguard, or to take care of. The eighth form of the verb becomes ittaqā-yattaqī that has a reflexive meaning around 'protecting' or 'guarding', as relating to oneself. It also means piety, more in the sense of being cautious of committing sinful acts. The sinful acts are those which lead people away from Paradise, and, hereby, could deprive them of having a glimpse of God.
Let us consider a narrative to explain taqwā. The second Khaliph, Umar in Khattāb (r.) sked Ubay bin Ka‘ab (r.) about taqwā. Ubay (r.) said, ‘Have you ever walked on a path that has thorns on it (and by the sides of it?’ Umar (r.) said, ‘Yes.’ Then, Ubay (r.) said, ‘What did you do then?’ He said, ‘I rolled up my sleeves and struggled (to pass through carefully).’ Ubay then (r.) said, ‘That was taqwā.’ Here, the protection of oneself, one's clothings from being entangled with thorns and carefully freeing oneself to continue towards their destination has been understood as taqwā. Similar is the idea of living a life in this world, freeing oneself from carnality and making preparation for the final destiny.
The word for fasting in Arabic is ṣawm, (and ṣiyām), meaning abstinence from something. We can take a few examples of the use of the word. First, ṣāma al-fars (صام الفرس) -the horse has stopped eating. Then, ṣāmat al-shams (صامت الشمس) -the Sun (as if in the hot mid-day sky) has become become stand-still. The famous pre-Isāmic poet ‘Imra’ul Qais used the word as in كأن الثريا علقت في مصامها ‘The Pleiades are as if hanged up on their standing-place’ (مَصَام). The poet's reference was made to the group of stars called al-Surayyā (Pleiades) which appeared to him poet as immobile at night. In these examples, ṣawm has been used for stopping, suspending and immobilisation. The notion is extended over stopping of carnal desires and temptations. The Islāmic Sharīah uses the words ṣawm and siyam as abstinence from food, drink and coitus with the intention to obey God's commands. If God is not intended in the act, then, it is merely abstinence, not fasting in the religious sense.
The Practice of Restraint
The observation of fasting can be found, in one form or another, in all formal religions and quasi-religions. Fasting is a visible restraint, but Islām has a set of codes demanding restraints in action and behaviours. The requirement is that it has to be born inside, through belief and make outward manifestation. Peace and security lies in the heart of it. The messenger of Allah (pbuh) said:
A Muslim is he from whose tongue and hand people are safe, and a believer is he from whom people's lives and wealth are safe (Abū Hurairah/al-Nasā’ī, link to the text).
Certain form of worship, like fasting, helps grow the quality of restraint, beside other objectives. In Islām, fasting is an obligation to all healthy people who are able to fast. Regarding the obligation of fasting, the Qur’ān says:
O those who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it has been prescribed for those before you, that you may be god-fearing (2:183).
Fasting (restraint) is an all-embracing matter focused towards achieving ‘god-fearing’. It should include one’s heart, hearing, seeing, and doing. Al-Qushayrī (d. 465 h), a commentator of the Qu’rān, says, ‘there are two types of fasting. One is outwardly (ظاهر) which is a withdrawal from food and drink with intension (for God). The other is inwardly (باطن) which is the fasting of the qalb (heart), saving it from the causes of corruption and illness. Then there is another aspect to it which is the protection of the ruh (soul) from poor dwellings and then there is another which is the protection of the sirr (the secret) from the mutual observations’ (Tafsīr Laṭā’if al-Ishārāt on verse 2:183, original text link). Certain terms here are sūfī oriented in thought and practice.
To al-Baqalī (D.606 H.), a sūfī commentator of the Qu’rān, fasting is about transcending human impurity and reaching the state of peace and nearness (Original text link).
The Inner Blindness and Carnality
The Islāmic narrative on human dignity has a particular seeing. Let us consider the following verse:
We have honoured the sons of Adam and carried them on land and sea and have made provision of good things for them; and conferred on them special favours above many things we created. On that day We will call all human beings with their Imam; and whoever will be given their book in their right hand, they will read their book; and they will not be dealt with unfairly at all. But those who were blind in this world will be blind in the hereafter, and most astray from the Path’ (17:72).
The following can be noted from this verse in particular:
(1) honouring the sons of Adam
(2) conferring on them special favour and
(3) resurrecting some of them as blind
The ‘special favour’ as according to Ibn al-‘Arabi [D. 638 H.] is for man’s ‘ability to speak (النطق), the ability to distinguish (التمييز) and the ability to know (المعرفة). As for Allāh’s preference of people (like the Prophets) over Angels, that is not simply because they are human beings, for they do not surpass the state of intelligence (مقام العقل from others), but for the ‘secret’ (السر) disposed on them. The Qur’ān indicates to it by the saying of Allāh to the angels, ‘إِنِّيۤ أَعْلَمُ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ –‘I know what you do not know’ (2:30). This secret that the angels did not know that has been induced in Ādam (pbhu) had distinguished him from others, and so the angels were asked to bow before him [link to original text here].
Those who remain blind (spiritually) in this world will wake up blind in the Hereafter. Their inner curtain will manifest in a way that they might not see God. All will have been resulting from excessive worldliness. Carnality (الشهوة) will be one among the major. There is a du‘ā’ in a ḥadīth which reads like this:
[My Lord] I askYou for the sweetness of looking upon Your face and a longing to meet You in a manner that does not entail a calamity that will bring about harm or a trial that will cause deviation. O Allah, beautify us with the adornment of faith and make us among those who guide and are rightly guided (original text link here).
It is important to gain control over carnality and be heedful. The path may be full of thorns, yet the example given by Ubay (r.) to Omar (r.) can be taken. The goal is far. But the thorns of the path should not captivate the wayfarers. Everything is time-bound. The soul and body have their needs but they should be balanced. Fasting can be of some help. The month of Ramadhan is a month of blessing. If taqwā is attained in this month it is so much the more blessing.
Another of my article on Ramaḍan can be read here http://www.shodalap.org/m_ahmed/13552